The Thief of Baghdad

Saddam Hussein: A Biography

by Fuad Matar
Highlight, 286 pp., £12.95

Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq

by Samir al-Khalil
University of California Press, 310 pp.

Human Rights in Iraq

Middle East Watch
Human Rights Watch / Yale University Press, 160 pp., $19.95

Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein; drawing by David Levine

The publications under review about the regime of Saddam Hussein have at least one thing in common: they were all written before August 2, 1990. None of the authors had foreknowledge that, in the small hours of that day, the armed forces of Iraq would invade and occupy the entire territory of the state of Kuwait. The present reviewer, writing four weeks after that event, has a strong sense that the world before it happened was a different place; but he equally has no foreknowledge of other events, perhaps no less dramatic and even more momentous, that may have occurred before these words find their way into the hands of the reader.

For a writer, such an event has the effect of raising the stakes. On the one hand, it attracts public attention to his subject, thereby possibly bringing him a much larger readership. On the other, it subjects his work to a harsh, perhaps unfair test: it will be judged by the light it throws, or fails to throw, on an event he could not know of while he was writing it. At worst, he may have exposed himself to ridicule by selective quotation.

Such is the case of Fuad Matar, a wellknown Lebanese journalist who produced a quasi-official biography of the Iraqi president in 1981. This has now been reissued in a “1990 edition,” in fact unchanged except for a glossy dust jacket on which the author’s name is spelled wrong, and a preface in which, after claiming that all but one of the predictions in the early edition have come true (the exception being the Non-Aligned Summit, which was not held in Baghdad in 1982), Matar proceeds to assert “the right of the new Arab generation to read about Saddam Hussein now, especially after guns have become silent and doves fly with the olive branch of peace above the region.”

Yet the reader would be wrong to deduce from this that Mr. Matar’s book is of no further interest. If Saddam Hussein is now to be compared with Hitler (a point I shall return to later in this article), there is bound to be a search for his Mein Kampf, and Matar’s book, based mainly on interviews with Saddam and his close associates, and published with his approval, may well be the nearest available equivalent in Western languages. For instance, while it may seem merely ironic that among the gains Iraq expected from its war with Iran was the chance “to find out once and for all who its friends were and who its enemies were” (since if any state might be supposed to have passed this test of friendship it is Kuwait), it is surely not without interest that Iraq also saw that war as a chance “to test its Army on the battlefield and evaluate its capacity to handle modern weapons” in preparation for “a national…


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